Review Summary: Mainstream rock without a mainstream audience? Or novelty indie heroes breaking down the doors?
Mainstream music is a difficult thing to decipher. Weird combinations of funky bass grooves, layered and filtered guitars and turntable scratching used to be considered alternative rock, but I guess the rules changed once Incubus hit the mainstream. Avial, therefore, is essentially making modern-pop music. Really the easiest comparison to make is to Incubus. All the elements are the same, but Avial doesn't seem to be going out of it's way to sound weird. Rex Vijayan's jazzy-chords and metallic riffing, Tony John's scratching and Naresh Kamath's outstandingly funky and always interesting bass playing. Even vocalist Anand Raj has that slightly gritty but soaring tenor, that makes him so damn Brandon Boyd-like. Why then do I think this album deserves a 4? Because every song on this album is so damn well played, well produced and downright catchy. Oh, and it isn't even in English.
Yes it's true. The lyrics in these songs are based on Malayalam (that's the regional language of Kerala in South India, where Avial are from) folk songs and poems. But don't let that daunt you. Even if you're unable to get your hands on the actual physical CD and CD case for the lyrics, I guarantee you'll still find yourself singing along.
The lead off single from the album, "Nada Nada" has been in circulation for some time, in various versions. The album version is the most fully realised and catchy of the lot. The vocals have remained the same, but the music, especially the guitar lines have changed significantly but for the better.
A few words on the work of guitarist Rex Vijayan and bassist Naresh Kamath. It really is outstanding. Vijayan actually manages to impress while being understated, notably on the pseudo-sitar intro of "Karukara" that leads into the main riff and on "Aadu Pambe". He is the creative spark behind the band and seems to have no shortage of riffs to throw into the mix. With the sheer number of varied riffs that he manages to get into each song, not to mention the random excursions into jazz territory, you'd be excused for thinking he'd be better off playing in a prog-rock band, which he actually did at one point, being a former member of fellow Indian rock stalwarts Motherjane. However, as impressive as his playing is, he continuously pushes the spotlight away from himself, preferring to create a a layered and textured canvas of sound. Kamath's basswork is equally varied and sometimes even more interesting than Vijayan's guitar, which is saying something. The interplay on the outro of the previously mentioned "Karukara" as well as the huge sound he gets in "Chekele" are, for lack of a better superlative, awesome.
Sadly, vocalist Anand Raj is no longer with the band, and Tony John has taken over lead-vocal duties. This is unfortunate, as Raj's vocals were a HUGE part of what makes this such a fine album. He delivers powerful perfomances throughout, especially on "Nada Nada" and "Njan Aara" and it remains to be seen if John can deliver as consistently and as powerfully as Raj.
In short, the music might seem a little confusing. Every song has at least one, if not more hooks, to pull you in, keep you engaged and stick with you, but the fact that the lyrics aren't in English might hinder its appeal. Sure it will appeal both to the average music fan who doesn't speak malayalam, or the average malayalam-speaking person who doesn't listen to much rock music, but while the non-English approach might be part of the novelty of the band, it could also be a one-shot gimmick that somehow works for an entire album instead of a single song.